Jane Eyre: Can an 1800s Classic Possibly be a Feminist Novel?

I’ve read Jane Eyre three times in my life. The first time I started it with a friend, who didn’t end up reading it through. The second time was a summer reading for an AP class. Now, I've read it again, for a required English course. I usually don’t read things more than once, but since under the given circumstances I had to, I was able to look at the same story again and again through different eyes.

A shot from the 2006 BBC Film Adaptation of Jane Eyre

The first time, it was a simple story with an ending I could roll with, as someone who was just reading for the pleasure of it. The second time, I was introduced to it as a feminist novel. Here’s the spoiler: at the ending of the novel, Jane Eyre (the protagonist) and Edward Rochester (her Gothic hero of a beau), are reunited after much drama, but almost solely on the basis of her becoming rich and his losing an eye, hand, and almost his entire estate. According to my AP Literature teacher, there was a level on the playing field. Jane was elevated while Rochester was degraded (in an entirely ableist fashion) so that they were deemed equal.

In the twenty-first century, that’s not equality... is it? In the words of some boy with a questionable character in my current literature class (insert obnoxious tone): “Why does he have to be crippled and poor for them to be equal?”

And he’s right. Feminism is not supposed to be about the degradation of men. But he’s also entirely wrong.

In the year Jane Eyre was published, 1847, women could not yet own property in England. They were property.

A political cartoon from the 1800s depicting a married lifestyle

Charlotte Brontë and her sisters were forced to publish their books under male pseudonyms, in order to be accepted as novelists by both the publishers and the general public. The only way for a woman to be equal was that she couldn’t be.

What the boy in my class was failing to acknowledge was the power imbalance that existed between Jane and Rochester. He was a rich, white, upper-class male in the 1800s. She was a poor, young woman who had no family. Brontë could have easily married her characters without changing that, and still called it a romance. But that’s not why we read Brontë. We read Brontë because she did whatever she could, problematic as it was (her flaws include being racist, ableist, and classist), to tell women they had a chance.

Women could be powerful too, and Brontë herself wasn’t the only example.

 

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